Beautiful Ohio Reviews
The New York Times
“Harold Meltzer’s elegant Beautiful Ohio, settings of five poems by James Arlington Wright, received its premiere….”
“Meltzer’s cycle was performed compellingly by the fine young tenor Paul Appleby and Mr. Blier. Wright, who died in 1980, was a native of Martins Ferry, Ohio, a steel town. He had an advanced education and moved in cultured circles but felt like an outsider all his life. The poems Mr. Meltzer selected include two taken from Wright’s sojourns in Italy and three aching ruminations on Ohio.
“In Beautiful Ohio, titled after the third song in the cycle, Mr. Meltzer proves an acute reader of Wright’s poems. In the first song, Small Frogs Killed on the Highway, the poet is disturbed yet impressed, in a way, by the sight of determined frogs leaping across a country road at night, some dying under the tires of passing cars. Mr. Meltzer captures the ambiguity of Wright’s attitude in his fitful music. The vocal lines are direct and austere; the piano teems with rustling figurations and sputtering chords.
“In Caprice Wright explains that when he tires of people in Italy, he focuses on trees. Mr. Meltzer counters the dark sarcasm of the isolated poet by having the piano almost, but never quite, echo the vocal line in spiraling unison octaves.
“The most bitterly beautiful song is the last, Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio, which depicts the mood in a small Ohio town after a Friday night high school football game. There is riveting tension between the somberly elegaic vocal writing and the heaving piano part, thick with grating precisely textured chords. Mr. Appleby’s warm, strong yet subtle singing made every word a living presence, supported by Mr. Blier’s nuanced playing.”
“With [Steve] Blier at the piano, [Paul] Appleby lent his ingratiating lyric instrument to debuting cycle ‘Beautiful Ohio,’ Harold Meltzer’s setting of poems by late writer and teacher James Arlington Wright. Songs of haunting beauty and profound alienation make up this striking and disturbing work, its words those of an inveterate outsider, both in homeland and abroad. ‘Small Frogs Killed on the Highway,” the opening song, concerns taking chances, whatever the cost. In ‘Little Marble Boy,’ the speaker identifies, in his loneliness, with a statue on a font, in a cathedral. The ‘title song’ is the quietly intense expression of someone with a very different Weltanschauung, finding beauty even in a polluted Midwestern river, the same outlook making him, in ‘Caprice,’ sense hostility emanating from trees in Italy. The cycle ends, in ‘Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,’ with an intriguing, almost erotic image of high school football players, the lines — ‘Their sons grow suicidally beautiful/At the beginning of October/And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies’ — sung caressingly by Appleby.”
“Kyle Bielfield had the honor of performing Harold Meltzer’s settings of James Wright’s selections from Beautiful Ohio. The poems resonate with me, as Wright seems to be creating poetry about the portion of Ohio that is literally a stone’s throw from West Virginia, and that’s where I spent my college days. When Bielfield began to sing, his smooth tenor caressed Wright’s paean to the state that he loved and didn’t. The emotions Meltzer and Bielfield evoke with the music and Wright’s lyrics on Small Frogs killed on the Highway, and the image of the final line–a technique for which Wright is famous–of tadpoles dancing on a quarter moon and not yet being able to see what awaits them is both a blessing and a curse, as well as a thought-provoking ending of a song. Followed by the bluesy and urban sound of Beautiful Ohio and then the darkly clear-eyed nostalgia of Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, the songs give Bielfield the opportunity to use his soaring, sinuous tenor as he bent the notes to his will. [Host Russell] Platt spoke of Brooklyn-born Meltzer as having an urban perspective that portrays the patience of life in the Midwest so clearly, and the clarity is stunning.”